Last February 16 I left my suburban office at around 4:30 p.m. to drive to downtown Chicago, where I was to meet my wife for dinner prior to attending an opera. Normally when I meet Jenny downtown, I take the commuter train that stops at a gloriously convenient station one block from our home. That's because my Type A personality goes bonkers being conveyed at single-digit mph by the metal glacier that is our city's rush hour traffic. On Monday, February 16, however, I surmised that traffic would not be too bad even during the peak of rush hour, and I turned out to be right. Doing close to the speed limit most of the way in, I arrived at the restaurant a half-hour early.
You see, it was President's Day, a national pseudo-holiday. The postal service and virtually all other federal, state and local government offices were shut down, although in the private sector it was pretty much business as usual. Numerous phone calls made to private organizations that day found all except one open for business - the exception being a union mechanical contracting firm whose labor agreement called for President's Day off.
Two questions arise from this experience.
1. What good civic purpose is served by having all those government workers stay home while the business world takes little notice of their esoteric holiday?
2. Doesn't it say something profound about the proliferation of government when a government-only holiday does a better job of unclogging metropolitan traffic than all those entreaties by government officials for the rest of us to car pool and take public transportation?
Modern MandarinsDecades ago when I first entered the job market, people used to talk about civil service involving a trade-off. Pay scales for government jobs typically lagged behind the private sector's, but public employees got top-notch benefits and were virtually immune to layoffs. Most people both inside and outside of government thought that a fair deal.
Now, government workers (tellingly, one hardly ever hears the phrase "civil servant" anymore) have it all. Except for the top executive positions, public pay now ranks right up there with private industry, while the benefits remain top-notch and it's still next to impossible to lay off or fire anyone from a government job. As private sector unions go through a death spiral, those representing government workers have become the largest and most influential in all of organized labor, evolving into an interest group whose interests take precedence over the public they allegedly serve.
This situation brings to mind the Mandarin bureaucrats of imperial China who took to extremes of clothing and grooming to distinguish themselves from those they governed. Except in California, it's pretty hard to stand out by displaying oneself ostentatiously. Instead, a particular class of self-righteous bureaucrats has chosen to elevate its status by trying to hijack virtually all architecture and engineering contracts involving state-funded projects.
The modern Mandarins are members of a state employees' union called Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG).
They are trying to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would order the state controller's office to review public construction design contracts with an eye toward determining whether they could be done cheaper by PECG members. Such audits would almost always turn in their favor, because the formula used to calculate state costs would ignore employee compensation, rent, utilities, phone and office expenses, as well as insurance, legal and capital costs. Think of how much you could trim your bids were your firm to ignore such pesky little expenditures.
The controller's office has no particular expertise to evaluate the relative merits of contract proposals. Opponents of the measure say the state would have to hire up to 15,000 additional employees for this role, at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion a year. But don't look for that expense be factored into the PECG bids.
Imagine all the delays there would be in state construction projects while bumbling bureaucrats groped their way through the legalese of contract documents. Then once a project finally got underway, what kind of working relationship could contractors and owners expect from design partners imposed upon them through rigged bidding?
Dueling interestsPECG calls its power grab the "Government Cost Savings and Taxpayers Protection Amendment." They portray themselves as noble public officials protecting taxpayers against the ravages of greedy private companies that buy no-bid privileges through political contributions. This is not to say they are entirely wrong with that accusation. Show me a state where influence peddling doesn't take place, and I'll show you a man bites dog story. It's just that PECG's cure is likely to be worse than the disease, as are most government takeovers of private enterprise.
Not to be out-propagandized, an opposing coalition has tagged the initiative the "Competition Killer" Amendment. The coalition calls itself "Taxpayers Against 224."
The coalition numbers more than 600 organizations representing not only the private A/E community, but users and general business interests as well, including the California Chamber of Commerce. The California Construction Trades Council has even joined in opposing their white-collar PECG brethren.
The proposed amendment will appear as Proposition 224 on the statewide ballot in June. Don't expect the vote to hinge on enlightened debate. In California even more than everywhere else, the side that produces the most gut-wrenching TV commercials usually wins. The PECG union has spent some $2 million trying to get their initiative passed, raising the money from a dues assessment to its members. Taxpayers Against 224 is desperately trying to keep up.
"Competition Killer" comes about just as California is starting to claw its way out of the state's devastating construction recession that has lasted the better part of this decade. If the citizens of California get suckered into passing this thing, look for their construction economy to once again tumble downhill faster than the El NiEo mudslides of this past winter. For more information, contact Taxpayers
Against 224 at 916-774-9750; http://www.no224.org.
The online Communications Network for the Construction Industry has provided a forum for both pro and con discussion on the PECG initiative. They can be accessed at http://www.connet.com.